Rita Smith passed away well before Shannon Downey heard her name. But death didn’t stop the 99-year-old from touching this stranger’s heart.
Shannon has a passion for embroidery and frequents estate sales to search for antique and vintage textiles. So when she entered Rita’s home in Mount Prospect, Illinois this year, she was amazed to find a treasure trove waiting for her.
Hanging on a wall was a beautiful embroidered map of the U.S. that showed off every state flower. Shannon loved it and purchased it before anyone else could. But what she came across next brought her to tears.
Rita had begun a massive quilting project that required stitching designs of all 50 states, but she’d only had time to complete two of them.
At least 100 pieces of prepped fabric were left in a box, just waiting to be completed, and Shannon found herself deeply moved by them. “It felt so personal and intimate seeing the way she had left it,” she told BBC. “As soon as I saw the pieces, I knew I had to complete it, but I knew it was bigger than anything I had ever done before.”
She bought every last piece, but she still faced an enormous obstacle. “While I embroider, I don’t quilt,” she explained. “So I asked my Instagram community if people would help me finish it.”
The outpouring of support she received was unbelievable! People from all over the country immediately volunteered. In just one day, she had over 1,000 strangers offer to help with the 100 individual hexagons that needed to be embroidered!
She collected addresses and started sending pieces out. Now these faithful volunteers are sharing their progress on Instagram by using the hashtag #ritasquilt.
Throughout this process, many people have wondered about Rita and her life. So they began researching and discovered Rita’s maiden name and a school yearbook photo! Shannon was even able to find and contact Rita’s son to learn more.
“He lives in the area and told me his mother was born in Michigan and worked as a school nurse all her life,” Shannon said. “He said she loved to undertake big craft projects, some [of] which would last for years.”
Everyone has until November 15 to complete their pieces and get them back to Shannon. Once that happens, a team of 30 quilters she’s organized in Chicago will stitch the pieces together. A local quilting studio has even promised its space for them to work in!
When the project is finished, Shannon will donate it to a quilting museum. Once there, it will be a testament to the power of community — and to Rita’s vision!
It’s so beautiful to watch Rita’s legacy live on through so many strangers. We can’t wait to see the incredible quilt when it’s finished!